Movies & TV / Columns

411 Talks w/Martial Artist and Stunt Performer Cheryl Wheeler Sanders

May 15, 2018 | Posted by Bryan Kristopowitz
Cheryl Wheeler-Sanders

The 411 Interview: Cheryl Wheeler Sanders

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Cheryl Wheeler Sanders is a martial artist, a former world kickboxing champion, and stunt professional who has been working in Hollywood for over three decades, working on movies and TV shows like They Live, Die Hard 2: Die Harder, V.I. Warshawski, Maniac Cop 2, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Lethal Weapon 3 and 4, Dharma & Greg, GCB, and more. Sanders has also now branched out into producing with The Martial Arts Kid (check out my review of that flick here). In this interview, Cheryl Wheler Sanders talks with this writer about her martial arts background, her career as a stunt performer and more.

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Bryan Kristopowitz: How did you get involved in the movie stunt industry? Is it something that you always wanted to do or was it something that became an interest later on?

Cheryl Wheeler Sanders: I grew up in Pensacola, Florida, and I’ve been involved in Yoshukai Karate since I was 15. Got my black belt when I was about 17, and got involved in kickboxing. I won a world title in kickboxing and from there segued into the movie industry. Moved out to Los Angeles when I was 21 and wanted to get into the movie business as an action actor. Was taking acting classes and hoping to break into the film business doing martial arts movies. Worked on a few different films as an actor, but they were physical roles and I was doing martial arts in the parts. I met a lot of stunt people working on the films, and they encouraged me to pursue stunt work. They said I was the right size and height to double a lot of the current leading ladies. It was so much fun to do the physical acting and I was a natural at it. And the rest is history! I never looked back! My first big role was stunt doubling Brooke Shields in a movie called Brenda Starr. I was on that film for 3 months and we shot in Puerto Rico and Florida.

BK: What was your background before you got involved in the stunt industry? How did that background inform your entry into the stunt industry?

CWS: My background was martial arts, fighting, and kickboxing. I also grew up on the beach, so I was comfortable with all water sports (swimming, surfing, waterskiing and more). I also grew up riding horses, so I was very skilled on the back of a horse. I rode English, Western, and often bareback on the beach. All of these skills together served me well in entering the stunt industry, as I was a good all-around athlete and wasn’t afraid of hitting the ground or physical contact. It also didn’t hurt that I grew up with five brothers and no sisters, as the stunt business was definitely a male dominated industry. I was right at home with all the boys.

BK: According to your filmography on imdb you’ve worked in a number of genre movies. Is genre entertainment something you have a personal affinity for or is it just a coincidence that you’ve worked on so many genre movies?

CWS: Whatever they called me for I would work on. Genre films tend to have a lot of action. I also worked on a lot of low budget films that featured action as the attraction, not necessarily big names. Whatever I got called for, I would do for the most part, unless it featured nudity. I would pass on those jobs.

BK: You’ve also worked on a few comedies, like Police Academy 5: Assignment: Miami Beach and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Is working on a comedy like those two movies different than working on something like Die Hard 2: Die Harder or is it ultimately all about the stunt/stunts and what the movie needs you to do?

CWS: A big action film is different than a comedy, but usually only because of the amount of stunts and stunt people involved. You might have 40 or 50 stunt people on a big action film. With comedy, it’s usually, but not always, a smaller stunt crew. For instance, with Police Academy 5, it was only me doubling Janet Jones.

BK: What’s the hardest stunt you’ve had to perform for a movie? Is there such a thing as an “easy stunt”?

CWS: I did a stunt on a movie called Nightfighters, I think I’m remembering the name correctly, where me and another stuntman had to jump off of a train trestle, about 50 feet to crash boxes (cardboard boxes), and had to leap at the same time a train crashed in to a stalled police car on the train tracks. It was a tough stunt because the train was coming fast and we had to wait until they collided to jump, as the director wanted us to be backlit with the explosion. The X factor was that no one realized how the trestle would be moving and swaying from the weight and force of the train, so it was hard to keep your footing, and we had to run and jump from the moving and swaying trestle. It was at night, and we had to jump in unison. It was a very scary stunt and it all went off without a hitch, thank goodness.

BK: What don’t people understand about stunts in movies and what stunt performers actually do for a movie?

CWS: Stunt performers are crucial to all action scenes. But what most people don’t realize is that stunt people, if they are doubling an actor or actress, are responsible for taking care of them on set and watching out for them, making sure they have knee and elbow pads, or if they are on the ground , making sure they have a pad to lay on, rehearse scenes for them, step in when they need help, and basically have their backs.

When I stunt doubled Rene Russo on Lethal Weapon 3 we started training together six weeks before we started filming. I taught her karate, and we worked out together daily. We became very good friends training together every day and I watched over her on set and took good care of her. It was my job to make her look good, and make her comfortable with what action she had to do. She came to rely on me and trusted me wholeheartedly.

BK: How did you come to work with Rene Russo so many times as her stunt double?

CWS: We became good friends while working together so closely on Lethal Weapon 3, as my previous answer described. She came to trust me and so every movie she worked on afterwards, she would always request me to be her stunt double. She knew I had her back and would always take care of her. She was my priority.

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BK: How is working as a stunt double for a featured actress in a movie different than working as “just” a stunt performer? Is the pressure to perform markedly different?

CWS: Yes! Doubling the star is a lot of pressure. You have to be on your game and you must perform at 100%. Your ability reflects on the stunt coordinator as well as the stars. Of course it’s important to be at 100% at all times, but the way you carry yourself on set, always being present and ready to jump in at a moment’s notice, always there for your actor even when there are not giant stunts to perform, being present for the little things like if she is kneeling on the ground doing dialogue and there are no big stunts, but maybe she needs knee pads or hip pads to be comfortable. Those are the little things that make a difference with your actress and makes her feel cared for and taken care of. I always strive to be there on set anytime my actress is on set and might need me. It is all about her. I have been requested by various actresses over and over due to the fact that I always try and go that extra mile for them.

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BK: You worked as a stunt performer in both Maniac Cop 2 and Die Hard 2: Die Harder, both of which came out in 1990. What was the difference back then between working on a low budget horror feature like Maniac Cop 2 and a big budget Hollywood studio movie like Die Hard 2: Die Harder?

CWS: LOL! Sometimes the low-budget films have the best stunts in them. Maniac Cop 2 was very low budget but we had a big stunt budget and there were some crazy stunts in it. We shot it a lot quicker and it was a lot easier to film due to a smaller crew and a smaller budget that kept us on a tight schedule. Big movies like Diehard move slower and they do shot after shot. Although there is more prestige working on the bigger name movies, sometimes the smaller budget films are the most fun.

BK: In general, how has the stunt business/stunt industry changed since you started back in the late 1980’s?

CWS: The main change that I see is that in the 1980’s all the stunt people were based out of Hollywood, California. Now there are stunt people everywhere. Movies shoot in Louisiana, Texas, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Atlanta and New Mexico and all across the country and there are many locals in each area that do stunts now. Although we are still called to travel to various locations it is much more competitive now. There are definitely more women in the business now than there used to be back in 1980.

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BK: You’ve worked with several “name” directors multiple times. What was it like working with John Carpenter? John McTiernan? John Badham? Renny Harlin? Robert Rodriguez? Richard Donner?

CWS: I loved working with all of the big-name directors. John Badham was such a gracious man and I enjoyed working with him so much on Point of No Return. My favorite was probably Richard Donner. He was such a gracious and talented director. He set the tone of all the movies that he directed, Lethal Weapon 1, 2, 3 and 4. Although everyone worked hard he made it so much fun with no undue pressure despite some very serious action and fight scenes. Robert Rodriquez was a bit intimidating, although kind to me, but he worked mostly through his first assistant director who gave most everyone all their direction. He didn’t have a lot to say, but was always kind to the crew and appreciated them very much.

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BK: How did you get involved producing The Martial Arts Kid? Is movie producing something you would like to continue doing?

CWS: My co-producer James Wilson and I have been lifelong friends and wanted to put together a martial arts film featuring his brother, world kickboxing champion Don “The Dragon” Wilson and another good friend of ours, Cynthia “Lady Dragon” Rothrock. We wanted to produce a “feel good” film about the martial arts that families and young kids and teens could enjoy. So many action movies feature over the top violence, death and killing, and we wanted to produce something more wholesome but still featured and uplifted the martial arts. We gathered together a group of talented martial artists and actors, raised the money, and proceeded to make The Martial Arts Kid. It turned out amazingly well and has been very successful. It has won numerous film festival awards and we are very proud of it.

BK: Are you involved, in any way, with the upcoming sequel The Martial Arts Kid 2: Payback?

CWS: Yes! I am co-producer of The Martial Arts Kid 2: Payback, and very excited to be co-producing the sequel. We will have a bigger budget and expanded cast, and we feel it will be a bigger and better film overall.

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BK: Any upcoming projects you can tell us about?

CWS: Just finished a new project with Rene Russo called Velvet Buzzsaw. Her husband Dan Gilroy directed the movie. I believe it is a Netflix film. I did a few stunts for her in it. It was so much fun and I believe it will be an entertaining movie! Besides that, James Wilson and I are concentrating on raising funds for our upcoming sequel The Martial Arts Kid 2: Payback.

BK: What advice would you give to someone who wants to get involved in the movie stunt industry?

CWS: Perseverance. It’s not an easy business to break into, but not impossible. Having an athletic skill set is a must, but beyond that, people skills, politeness, ethics, kindness, professionalism, and tenacity. You almost need to know someone to introduce you into the stunt business because it’s a lot about who you know, and finding a stunt coordinator willing to give you a chance, and a lot of it is making the rounds to movie sets (which are hard to get on to these days) and introducing yourself, and not giving up.

BK: Have you ever been scared performing a stunt?

CWS: Yes. Always. Any stunt person that says they haven’t been scared in their career are telling a big fat story. A healthy fear is a good thing and helps keep you safe. Fear keeps you on your toes, and is a good thing. I take my fear and turn it into a powerful energy that helps me perform bigger and better.

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A very special thanks to Cheryl Wheeler Sanders for agreeing to participate in this interview and to david j. moore for helping set it up.

Check out The Martial Arts Kid official website here, Facebook page here and Instagram page here.

Check out the Cheryl Wheeler Sanders Instagram page here, her imdb page here, and her Martial Arts Entertainment page here.

Maniac Cop 2 and Point of No Return images from Amazon. The Martial Arts Kid image from The Martial Arts Kid official website. All other images courtesy of Cheryl Wheeler Sanders.


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